Drought news: Low streamflow and high water temperatures are tough on aquatic species

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From the Summit Daily News (Brian Lorch and Lane Wyatt):

Managing our demand for water by implementing water conservation measures also reduces the stress on the aquatic environment found in the streams and reservoirs that are the source of most of our local water supplies. As the stream flows diminish in a drought, water temperature goes up and habitat and refuge for fish and aquatic invertebrates goes down…

In Colorado, only the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) can hold water rights to protect streamflows for the environment. Individuals, environmental groups and others cannot hold these water rights for instream environmental purposes although they can petition the CWCB to acquire these rights or can donate existing water rights for this purpose. The CWCB will consult with the Division of Parks and Wildlife to quantify an instream flow level that provides only the “minimum amount to protect the environment to a reasonable degree”. This flow is usually enough to provide passage for fish though riffles that may limit connectivity to pools and other safe havens, essentially only about enough to keep the backs of the fish wet in these shallow areas.

Like other water rights in Colorado, the effectiveness of these instream flow water rights to protect stream- flows is based on their seniority within the prior appropriation system. So in order for the instream flow rights to protect streamflows from diversions out of the stream they must be senior, or older than the water right associated with the diversion. We are lucky in Summit County that most of our streams have some instream flow water right for protection. For a description of the instream flow water rights in Summit County and for more information on Colorado’s instream flow program, check out this website: http://cwcb.state.co.us /environment/instream-flow-program/Pages/main.aspx

From NOAA’s State of the Climate webpage:

The May-July months, an important period for agriculture, was the second warmest and 12th driest such three-months for the Lower 48, contributing to rapid expansion of drought. The central regions of the country were hardest hit by the drought, where ten states had three-month precipitation totals among their ten driest, including Nebraska, Kansas, and Arkansas which were record dry.

According to the July 31, 2012, U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM), 62.9 percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought at the end of July. This is an increase of about 6.9 percent compared to the end of June. The maximum value of 63.9 percent reached on July 24 is a record in the 13-year history of the USDM.

The area of the country in the worst drought categories (extreme to exceptional drought) doubled from 10 percent last month to 22 percent this month. The extreme dryness and excessive heat devastated crops and livestock from the Great Plains to Midwest.

The Primary Corn and Soybean Agricultural Belt, hard hit by drought, experienced its eighth driest July, third driest June-July, and sixth driest April-July (growing season) in the 1895-2012 record.

According to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, whose record spans the 20th century, about 57 percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate-to-extreme drought in July. The last drought this extensive was in December 1956 when about 58 percent of the nation was in moderate-to-extreme drought.

From the Summit Daily News (Paige Blankenbuehler):

In total, $1,865,850 has been made available to Colorado farmers and ranchers through the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Colorado farmers and ranchers are experiencing the most devastating drought in decades,” [U.S. Senator Michael Bennet] said. “At a time when our economy is just getting back on its feet, we need all hands on deck to ensure that our rural communities have the tools they need to continue to grow and thrive. I encourage producers across Colorado to take advantage of the resources.”

Bennet’s comments come in a timely way as corn prices hit a record high Friday as the U.S. government slashed its forecast for the drought-damaged corn crop even more than analysts were expecting.

From email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Jennifer Churchill):

Drought conditions and low water flows throughout the state have Colorado Parks and Wildlife reminding anglers to monitor water temperature when they are out fishing. Several water-specific recommendations have already been released this summer; however aquatic biologists recognize that fish can be stressed due to temperatures in many different coldwater fishing locations.

“Handling fish in waters that are 68 degrees and above can put undue stress on them, causing mortalities and compromising the fishery as a whole,” said Ken Kehmeier, senior aquatic biologist for the Northeast region. “We ask that anglers keep in mind the production opportunity of a fishery and not solely the fishing opportunity. Get out and fish, but bring along a thermometer and try to fish early in the day for the best opportunities.”

Here’s a release from the USDA:

As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to do everything it can to help farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and communities being impacted by the nation’s persistent drought, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced USDA’s intent to purchase up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken, and catfish for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. The purchase will help relieve pressure on American livestock producers during the drought, while helping to bring the nation’s meat supply in line with demand while providing high quality, nutritious food to recipients of USDA’s nutrition programs.

“President Obama and I will continue to take swift action to get help to America’s farmers and ranchers through this difficult time,” said Vilsack. “These purchases will assist pork, catfish, chicken and lamb producers who are currently struggling due to challenging market conditions and the high cost of feed resulting from the widespread drought. The purchases will help mitigate further downward prices, stabilize market conditions, and provide high quality, nutritious food to recipients of USDA’s nutrition programs.”

Today, USDA announced its intention to purchase up to $100 million of pork products, up to $10 million of catfish products, up to $50 million in chicken products, and up to $10 million of lamb products for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. Through the Emergency Surplus Removal Program, USDA can use Section 32 funds to purchase meat and poultry products to assist farmers and ranchers who have been affected by natural disasters. The pork, lamb and catfish purchases are based on analyses of current market conditions. A major factor affecting livestock producers is the value of feed, which is currently running high because of the drought.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) purchases a variety of high-quality food products each year to support the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. USDA also makes emergency food purchases for distribution to victims of natural disasters. Government food experts work to ensure that all purchased food is healthful and nutritious. Food items are required to be low in fat, sugar and sodium. The commodities must meet specified requirements and be certified to ensure quality. AMS purchases only products of 100 percent domestic origin.

Last week in Washington, President Obama convened his White House Rural Council to review Executive Branch response actions and to develop additional policy initiatives to assist drought-stricken Americans. Following the meeting, the White House announced a number of new measures the Administration is taking, including USDA’s assistance for livestock and crop producers, the National Credit Union Administration’s increased capacity for lending to customers including farmers, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency waivers for federal truck weight regulations and hours of service requirements to drought-stricken communities. President Obama also stressed the need for the entire Administration to continue to look at further steps it can take to ease the pain of this historic drought.

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

Commercial tubers are required to shut down when the river is below 85 cubic feet per second, and that’s where the town stretch of the Yampa has been during the day since Monday.

The river was flowing at 80 cfs past the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at the Fifth Street bridge at 6:30 Friday morning, and with vacationing families shifting into back-to-school mode, the tubing season is fast dwindling.

The median flow for this date is 165 cfs, but Van De Carr had a positive take on the way the summer has unfolded, calling conservation releases from Stagecoach Reservoir and voluntary releases from Lake Catamount a godsend.

Earlier this summer, the Colorado Water Trust made use of a new state law that allows for temporary leases of stored water rights and consummated a deal with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to gradually release 4,000 acre feet of water into the river so that a portion of it could reach the town section and beyond. The releases are scheduled to last into September.

The Lake Catamount homeowners association responded in early July by releasing an additional amount that made the river more attractive for tubing.

The Yampa below Stagecoach was flowing at 68 cfs Friday morning, and gauges maintained by the Colorado Division of Water Resources showed that 69.5 cfs was flowing out of the outlet at the Lake Catamount dam and another 13 cfs was coming from the spillway.

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